Guest Writer George O Shields
“Every morning in Africa, an antelope wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest antelope, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or an antelope—when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” ~African Proverb
OF all the numerous species of large game to be found in the far West, there is none whose pursuit furnishes grander sport to the expert rifleman than the antelope (Antilocapra americana). His habitat being the high, open plains, he may be hunted on horseback, and with a much greater degree of comfort than may the deer, elk, bear, and other species which inhabit the wooded or mountainous districts. His keen eyesight, his fine sense of smell, his intense fear of his natural enemy, man, however, render him the most difficult of all game animals to approach, and he must indeed be a skillful hunter who can get within easy rifle range of the antelope, unless he happens to have the circumstances of wind and lie of ground peculiarly in his favor.
When the game is first sighted, even though it be one, two, or three miles away, you must either dismount and picket your horse, or find cover in some coulee or draw, where you can ride entirely out of sight of the quarry. But even under such favorable circumstances it is not well to attempt to ride very near them. Their sense of hearing is also very acute, and should your horse’s hoof or shoe strike a loose rock, or should he snort or neigh, the game is likely to catch the sound while you are yet entirely out of sight and faraway, and when you finally creep cautiously to the top of the ridge from which you expect a favorable shot, you may find the game placidly looking for you from the top of another ridge a mile or two farther away.
But we will hope that you are to have better luck than this. To start with, we will presume that you are an expert rifleman; that you are in the habit of making good scores at the butts; that at 800, 900, and 1,000 yards you frequently score 200 to 210 out of a possible 225 points. We will also suppose that you are a hunter of some experience; that you have at least killed a good many deer in the States, but that this is your first trip to the plains. You have learned to estimate distances, however, even in this rare atmosphere, and possess good judgment as to windage. You have brought your Creedmoor rifle along, divested, of course, of its Venier sight, wind-guage, and spirit-level, and in their places you have fitted a Beach combination front sight and Lyman rear sight. Besides these you have the ordinary open step sight attached to the barrel just in front of the action. This is not the best arm for antelope hunting; a Winchester express with the same sights would be much better; but this will answer very well.
We camped last night on the bank of a clear, rapid stream that gurgles down from the mountain, and this morning are up long before daylight; have eaten our breakfasts, saddled our horses, and just as the gray of dawn begins to show over the low, flat prairie to the east of us, we mount, and are ready for the start. The wind is from the northeast. That suits us very well, for in that direction, about a mile away, there are some low foot-hills that skirt the valley in which we are camped. In or just beyond these we are very likely to find antelope, and they will probably be coming toward the creek this morning for water.
We put spurs to our horses and gallop away. A brisk and exhilarating ride of ten minutes brings us to the foot-hills, and then we rein up and ride slowly and cautiously to near the top of the first one. Here we dismount, and, picketing our ponies, we crawl slowly and carefully to the apex. By this time it is almost fully daylight. We remove our hats, and peer cautiously through the short, scattering grass on the brow of the hill.
Do you see anything?
No; nothing but prairie and grass.
No? Hold! What are those small, gray objects away off yonder to the left? I think I saw one of them move. And now, as the light grows stronger, I can see white patches on them. Yes, they are antelope. They are busily feeding, and we may raise our heads slightly and get a more favorable view. One, two, three—there are five of them—two bucks, a doe, and two kids. And you will observe that they are nearly in the centre of a broad stretch of table-land.
“But,” you say, “may we not wait here a little while until they come nearer to us?”
Hardly. You see they are intent on getting their breakfast. There is a heavy frost on the grass, which moistens it sufficiently for present purposes, and it may be an hour or more before they will start for water. It won’t pay us to wait so long, for we shall most likely find others within that time that we can get within range of without waiting for them. So you may as well try them from here.
Now your experience at the butts may serve you a good turn. After taking a careful look over the ground, you estimate the distance at 850 yards, and setting up your Beach front and Lyman rear sights, you make the necessary elevation. There is a brisk wind blowing from the right, and you think it necessary to hold off about three feet. We are now both lying prone upon the ground. You face the game, and support your rifle at your shoulder by resting your elbows on the ground. The sun is now shining brightly, and you take careful aim at that old buck that stands out there at the left. At the report of your rifle a cloud of dust rises from a point about a hundred yards this side of him, and a little to the left, showing that you have underestimated both the distance and the force of the wind—things that even an old hunter is liable to do occasionally.
We both lie close, and the animals have not yet seen us. They make a few jumps, and stop all in a bunch. The cross-wind and long distance prevent them from knowing to a certainty where the report comes from, and they don’t like to run just yet, lest they may run toward the danger instead of away from it. You make another half-point of elevation, hold a little farther away to the right, and try them again. This time the dirt rises about twenty feet beyond them, and they jump in every direction. That was certainly a close call, and the bullet evidently whistled uncomfortably close to several of them. They are now thoroughly frightened. You insert another cartridge, hurriedly draw a bead on the largest buck again, and fire. You break dirt just beyond him, and we can’t tell for the life of us how or on which side of him your bullet passed. It is astonishing how much vacant space there is round an antelope, anyway. This time they go, sure. They have located the puff of smoke, and are gone with the speed of the wind away to the west. But don’t be discouraged, my friend. You did some clever shooting, some very clever shooting, and a little practice of that kind will enable you to score before night.
We go back to our horses, mount, and gallop away again across the table-land. A ride of another mile brings us to the northern margin of this plateau, and to a more broken country. Here we dismount and picket our horses again. We ascend a high butte, and from the top of it we can see three more antelope about a mile to the north of us; but this time they are in a hilly, broken country, and the wind is coming directly from them to us. We shall be able to get a shot at them at short range. So we cautiously back down out of sight, and then begins the tedious process of stalking them. We walk briskly along around the foot of a hill for a quarter of a mile, to where it makes a turn that would carry us too far out of our course. We must cross this hill, and after looking carefully at the shape and location of it, we at last find a low point in it where by lying flat down we can crawl over it without revealing ourselves to the game. It is a most tedious and painful piece of work, for the ground is almost covered with cactus and sharp flinty rocks, and our hands and knees are terribly lacerated. But every rose has its thorn, and nearly every kind of sport has something unpleasant connected with it occasionally; and our reward, if we get it, will be worth the pain it costs us. With such reflections and comments, and with frequent longing looks at the game, we kill time till at last the critical part of our work is done, and we can arise and descend in a comfortable but cautious walk into another draw.
This we follow for about two hundred yards, until we think we are as near our quarry as we can get. We turn to the right, cautiously ascend the hill, remove our hats, and peer over, and there, sure enough, are our antelope quietly grazing, utterly oblivious to the danger that threatens them. They have not seen, heard, or scented us, so we have ample time to plan an attack. You take the standing shot at the buck, and together we will try and take care of the two does afterward. At this short distance you don’t care for the peep and globe sights, and wisely decide to use the plain open ones. This time you simply kneel, and then edge up until you can get a good clear aim over the apex of the ridge in this position. The buck stands broadside to you, and at the crack of your rifle springs into the air, and falls all in a heap, pierced through the heart.
And now for the two does. They are flying over the level stretch of prairie with the speed of an arrow, and are almost out of sure range now. You turn loose on that one on the right, and I will look after the one on the left. Our rifles crack together, and little clouds of dust rising just beyond tell us that, though we have both missed, we have made close calls. I put in about three shots to your one, owing to my rifle being a repeater, while you must load yours at each shot. At my fourth shot my left-fielder doubles up and goes down with a broken neck; and although you have fairly “set the ground afire”—to use a Western phrase—around your right-fielder, you have not had the good fortune to stop her, and she is now out of sight behind a low ridge.
But you have the better animal of the two, and have had sport enough for the first morning. We will take the entrails out of these two, lash them across our horses behind our saddles, go to camp, and rest through the heat of the day; for this September sun beams down with great power in midday, even though the nights are cool and frosty.
And now, as we have quite a long ride to camp, and as we are to pass over a rather monotonous prairie country en route, I will give you a point or two on flagging antelope, as we ride along, that may be useful to you at some time. Fine sport may frequently be enjoyed in this way. If you can find a band that have not been hunted much, and are not familiar with the wiles of the white man, you will have little trouble in decoying them within rifle range by displaying to them almost any brightly-colored object. They have as much curiosity as a woman, and will run into all kinds of danger to investigate any strange object they may discover. They have been known to follow an emigrant or freight wagon, with a white cover, several miles, and the Indian often brings them within reach of his arrow or bullet by standing in plain view wrapped in his red blanket. A piece of bright tin or a mirror answers the same purpose on a clear day. Almost any conspicuous or strange-looking object will attract them; but the most convenient as well as the most reliable at all times is a little bright-red flag.
On one occasion I was hunting in the Snowy Mountains, in Northern Montana, with Samuel K Fishel, the government scout, and Richard Thomas, the packer, from Fort Maginnis. We had not been successful in finding game there, and on our way back to the post camped two days on the head of Flat Willow creek, near the foot of the mountains, to hunt antelopes. As night approached several small bands of them came toward the creek, but none came within range of our camp during daylight, and we did not go after them that night, but were up and at them betimes the next morning.
I preferred to hunt alone, as I always do when after big game, and went out across a level flat to some low hills north of camp. When I ascended the first of these I saw a handsome buck antelope on the prairie half a mile away. I made a long detour to get to leeward of him, and meantime had great difficulty in keeping him from seeing me. But by careful maneuvering I finally got into a draw below him, and found the wind blowing directly from him to me. In his neighborhood were some large, ragged volcanic rocks, and getting in line with one of these I started to stalk him. He was feeding, and as I moved cautiously forward I could frequently see his nose or rump show up at one side or the other of the rock. I would accordingly glide to right or left, as necessary, and move on. Finally, I succeeded in reaching the rock, crawled carefully up to where I could see over it, and there, sure enough, stood the handsome old fellow not more than fifty yards away, still complacently nipping the bunch-grass.
“Ah, my fine laddie,” I said to myself, “you’ll never know what hurt you;” and resting the muzzle of the rifle on the rock, I took a fine, steady aim for his heart and turned the bullet loose. There was a terrific roar; the lead tore up a cloud of dust and went screaming away over the hills, while, to my utter astonishment, the antelope went sailing across the prairie with the speed of a greyhound. I sprang to my feet, pumped lead after him at a lively rate, and, though I tore the ground up all around him, never touched a hair. And what annoyed me most was that, owing to some peculiar condition of the atmosphere, the smoke of each shot hung in front of me long enough to prevent me from seeing just where my bullets struck, and, for the life of me, I could not tell whether I was shooting over or under the game!
I went back over the hill to my horse, with my heart full of disappointment and my magazine only half full of cartridges. I loaded up, however, mounted, and, as I rode away in search of more game, I could occasionally hear the almost whispered “puff, puff” of Fishel’s and Thomas’s rifles away to the south and west, which brought me the cheering assurance … that we should not be without meat for supper and breakfast ….
I rode away to the west about two miles, and from the top of a high hill saw another band of forty or fifty antelopes on a table-land. I rode around till I got within about two hundred yards of them, when I left my horse under cover of a hill and again began to sneak on the unsuspecting little creatures. They were near the edge of the table, and from just beyond them the formation fell abruptly away into the valley some fifty feet. I crawled up this bluff until within about forty yards of the nearest antelope, and then, lying flat upon the ground, I placed my rifle in position for firing, and, inch by inch, edged up over the apex of the bluff until within fair view of the game. Again selecting the best buck—for I wanted a good head for mounting—I drew down on his brown side until I felt sure that if there had been a silver dollar hung on it I could have driven it through him. Confidently expecting to see him drop in his tracks, I touched the trigger. But, alas! I was doomed to still further disgrace. When the smoke lifted, my coveted prize was speeding away with the rest of the herd.
I simply stood, with my lower jaw hanging down, and looked after them till they were out of sight. Then I went and got my horse and went to camp. Sam and Dick were there with the saddles of three antelopes. When I told them what I had been doing, they tried to console me, but I wouldn’t be consoled ….
Sam said good-naturedly: “Come, go with me and get the head of the buck I killed. It’s a very handsome one, and only two miles from camp.”
I said I didn’t want any heads for my own use unless I could kill their owners myself, but would take this one home for a friend, so we saddled our horses and started.
As we reached the top of a hill about a mile from camp a large buck that was grazing ahead of us jumped and ran away to what he seemed to consider a safe distance, and stopped to look at us. Sam generously offered me the shot, and springing out of my saddle I threw down my rifle, took careful aim and fired. At the crack the buck turned just half way round, but was unable to make a single jump and sank dead in his tracks.
Sam is ordinarily a quiet man, but he fairly shouted at the result of my shot. I paced the distance carefully to where the carcass lay, and it was exactly 290 steps. The buck was standing broadside to me and I had shot him through the heart. Of course, it was a scratch. I could not do it again perhaps in twenty shots, and yet when I considered that I shot for one single animal and got him I could not help feeling a little proud of it. As we approached the animal, not knowing just where I had hit him, I held my rifle in readiness, but Sam said:
“Oh, you needn’t be afraid of his getting up. One of those Winchester express bullets is all an antelope needs, no matter what part of the body you hit him in.”
This old fellow had a fine head, and we took it off, and now as I write it gazes down upon me with those large, lustrous black eyes, from its place on the wall, as proudly and curiously as it did there on the prairie when I looked at it through the sights of my Winchester …. [However], it does not possess the lordly beaming, the fascinating grace, the timid beauty that distinguished the living animal ….
The curiosity which is so prominent a feature in the antelope’s nature costs many a one of them his life, and is taken advantage of by the hunter in various ways. When we reached camp that afternoon Dick told us how he had taken advantage of it. He had seen a small band on a level stretch of prairie where there was no possible way of getting within range of them, and having heard that if a man would lie down on his back, elevate his feet as high as possible, and swing them back and forth through the air, that it would attract antelopes, decided to try it. But the antelopes of this section had evidently never seen soap boxes or bales of hay floating through the air, and had no desire to cultivate a closer acquaintance with such frightful looking objects as he exhibited to their astonished gaze. And Dick said that when he turned to see if they had yet come within shooting distance they were about a mile away, and judging from the cloud of dust they were leaving behind them seemed to be running a race to see which could get out of the country first ….
These bright little creatures, though naturally timid, sometimes show great courage in defense of their young. I once saw a coyote sneak from behind a hill toward a herd of antelope. Instantly there was a grand rush of all the adult members of the band, male and female, toward the intruder; and when they had gotten in front of the kids they stopped, with bristles erect, ears thrown forward, and heads lowered, presenting a most warlike and belligerent appearance. The coyote, when he saw himself confronted with this solid phalanx, suddenly stopped, eyed his opponents for a few moments, and then, apparently overawed at the superiority of numbers and warlike attitude of his intended prey, slunk reluctantly away in search of some weaker victim. When he was well out of sight, the older members of the band turned to their young, caressed them, and resumed their grazing.
The speed of the antelope is probably not excelled by that of any other animal in this country, wild or domestic, except the greyhound, and, in fact, it is only the finest and fleetest of these that can pull down an antelope in a fair race ….
The antelope, one of the brightest and most graceful and beautiful of all our Western game animals, is fast disappearing from our broad plains, owing to the ceaseless slaughter of it that is carried on by “skin hunters,” Indians, “foreign noblemen,” and others who come to this country year after year and spend the entire summer in hunting. Hundreds of them are killed every summer by this latter class, and left to rot where they fall, not a pound of meat, a skin, or even a head being taken from them. I have seen with my own eyes this butchery carried on for years past, and know whereof I speak.
Nearly all the Territories have stringent laws intended to prohibit this class of slaughter, but in these sparsely settled countries the provisions for enforcing them are so meagre that these men violate them day after day and year after year with impunity. This is one of the instances in which prohibition does not prohibit. And what I have said of the antelope is true of all the large game of the great West. The elk, deer, mountain sheep, etc., are being slaughtered by the hundreds every year—tenfold faster than the natural increase. And the time is near, very near, when all these noble species will be extinct. The sportsman or naturalist who desires to preserve a skin or head of any of them must procure it very soon or he will not be able to get it at all.
“Respect the distance or the distance won’t respect you! It will eat you up, spit you out, and make you beg for mercy.” ~Anonymous
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee
* George O Shields, Cruisings in the Cascades / A Narrative of Travel, Exploration, Amateur Photography, / Hunting, and Fishing (Chicago, New York: Rand, McNally, 1889), Chapter 23. Photos, quotes added.